Joining a Movement: Frederick W. Thompson and the Life of an Organizer
By: Joseph Burton
Joseph Burton is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. His research explores the transmission of anarchist ideas in North America during the middle and latter twentieth century, focusing on the Industrial Workers of the World and linkages between democracy and revolutionary practice. His writing has been published in the Canadian Historical Review and he has shared and discussed his work at academic conferences in Canada and the United States. As an educator and sessional instructor, his teaching has focused on histories of work and working life in Canada.
Joining a social movement can be an intimidating move, especially for new activists and organizers. It may be easy to think that campaigners struggling for change, whether in the past or the present, were ‘born’ for such duties, as though they first entered social movements already equipped with the knowledge and tools for challenging oppressive power structures.
This assumption could not be further from the truth. Although opportunities to engage in political struggle are more freely available to some people than others, and the stakes of participating in social movements can vary widely, all activists must learn the tools of their trade over time; they are not born with them.
To explore this reality and to offer insight to readers interested in joining social movements today, I will examine the early life of one organizer from the North American labour movement — a man who became an effective leader with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a well-known thinker and historian from the working class: Frederick W. Thompson.
During the interwar period in the United States, Thompson was a prolific organizer for the IWW or the “Wobblies,” and he would publish one of the best-known accounts of the union in 1955.[i] But as we shall discover, Thompson did not come fully equipped to the struggle, nor did he become an `expert’ in organizing or activism before taking up a political cause. Rather, he learned as he went, slowly immersing himself in the world of politics in the Maritimes where he was born and then taking advantage of the resources and friendships around him, whether that meant accessing the public library, writing and reflecting on his thoughts, or having the courage to attend a meeting and to take on new responsibilities and duties.
Growing Up in New Brunswick
Fred Thompson was born in 1900 in Saint John, New Brunswick, one of the largest and most rapidly changing regions in the Maritime provinces. During the heyday of Canadian shipping in the 1860s, Saint John was among the largest hubs for shipbuilding and the circulation of merchant capital in the country. By the turn of the century, however, competition from steamships and declining investment brought local shipping and shipbuilding to a halt. Saint John was also home to numerous steel and iron foundries, as well as diverse consumer-goods manufacturers. Yet the expansion of the railway brought with it competition from larger producers in central Canada, inhibiting the region’s capacity to recover from the decline of the waterfront industries.[ii]
In this context, Thompson and his family maintained a precarious stability. Frederick Sommerville Thompson, Fred’s father, was employed as a bookkeeper and a public auditor. But in 1903 he died of chronic jaundice when Fred was only three years old. To compensate for the loss of household income, Florence Thompson took in boarders to provide for herself and her seven children, of whom Fred was the youngest. In later years, Thompson would reflect on his mother’s ability to make ends meet with astonishment and reverence, evidence which also shines some light on his adolescent experiences and attitudes.[iii]
Writing to his friend Penny Pixler in 1985, for example, he explained that he had “hungry schoolmates who liked to come home with me because my mother somehow managed to have something for me to eat when I got home.” In 1985, Thompson was “still shocked that folks go hungry when there is lots to eat.” Even as a child, he “felt that [his] mother could handle the food better than the folks who were handling it,” referring disparagingly to Saint John’s economic elite, and he explained to Penny that “I haven’t changed my mind since.”[iv]
The realization that his schoolmates often went hungry troubled Thompson, especially during his early adolescence, when he became aware of the growth in the Canadian economy. As historians like Linda Ambrose have written, agriculture was booming in Canada in the years before the First World War, a fact Thompson had learned in local papers and whose troubling implications he discussed with his family. After all, if food production was steadily rising in Canada, why did so many people in his life, including and especially his friends, continue to struggle? Thompson’s brother offered a short answer — “economics” — but this did not address the larger question: why did more food not translate into less hunger? Where was the extra food going? And what should we do about it?[v]
Involvement in a political cause often begins in this way, or by recognizing a problem in the world around us and attempting to discover as much as we can about that problem. In Thompson’s case, this recognition did not immediately spur him to join a movement. Instead, he began to read widely and often, exploring articles on “economics” in his family encyclopedia and turning quickly to other books likely sourced from the Saint John Free Public Library on Hazen Avenue. In the course of his reading, Thompson became familiar with thinkers like Adam Smith, the “father of Capitalism.” Smith led him to the famed English economist, David Ricardo, but also to philosophers such as Herbert Spencer and the Italian thinker and nationalist, Giuseppe Mazzini. Thompson even dabbled in poetry, taking a particular liking to Robert Burns and Percy Shelley and what Thompson perceived as their “libertarian proneness.”[vi]
It is important to remember that our memories of the past are not perfect nor always correct. So, it is possible that in recounting his political history over half a century later, Fred Thompson misremembered or streamlined certain events. In this case, we should be careful about drawing too straight a line between events, as though Thompson simply attended one demonstration, met socialists, and began attending meetings. It may have been the case that Thompson attended several demonstrations before either meeting socialists or regularly attending SPC meetings. For this reason, it is important to corroborate such memories or oral histories as much as possible with evidence from the time period itself, such as Thompson’s 1915 notebook, discussed above.
Within a few years, however, Thompson had sought out others who were asking the same questions that he was. After all, most of the people he had been reading were long dead. Late in 1915, while the First World War raged in Europe, he attended the trial for sedition of a prominent anti-war socialist, Wilfred Gribble, whom Thompson had read about in a local newspaper. There, he met veteran social activists, including members of the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC), whose meetings on Sunday evenings Thompson also began to attend.[vii]
During these meetings, Thompson encountered a diverse array of perspectives. All members of the SPC believed the best way to help workers was to end the economic system of capitalism, but some argued that the best way to do this was to pass helpful legislation, rather than supporting labour unions, which even high-ranking members like E.T. Kingsly, a founder of the SPC, argued pitted workers against one another. Others disagreed, believing that unions had an important part to play in the fight for a better world, because they improved workers’ lives in the here and now and therefore might keep those workers engaged in the wider struggle for socialism.
According to Thompson, the SPC shared meeting space in Saint John with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a union which organized widely across North America. He was therefore introduced to the perspectives of some AFL workers and officers, many of whom did not believe that it was necessary to defeat capitalism, at all. For them, workers’ lives could be improved by giving those workers more money to spend and more free time to spend it. This change would also ensure that more money was circulating in the economy and therefore mitigate the cyclical economic downturns which regularly devastated working families in Canada and the United States.[viii]
Writing Down His Thoughts
Thompson took all of this in, and gradually he began to increase his responsibilities and participation in the SPC. By 1916, he had taken on the role of official organizer, tasked with recruiting new members to the party and convincing older members to return. But he also continued to deepen his reading and awareness of political events, attending discussion sessions beyond the Sunday afternoon meetings, and reading more than just the SPC paper, the Western Clarion. Thompson’s efforts included small meetings at the home of prominent socialist Roscoe Fillmore in Oromocto, where attendees would review “all kinds of literature, leaflets, and so forth, from different radicals around the United States and Canada,” as he later recalled.[ix]
To help him process and reflect on these different perspectives, Thompson kept a journal, a habit he had begun even before joining the SPC. His small notebook was filled with short, numbered reflections and snippets of political wisdom (sometimes called “aphorisms”) based on his extensive reading and discussions. In aphorism number 18, for example, Thompson wrote that “value lies in use and not in rarity,” an observation which likely reflected his concern for his hungry schoolmates. For them, and for him, the value of food derived not from scarcity or an arbitrary value assigned to it, but from the ability to eat it and to nourish one’s body and mind. That Thompson prioritized need over monetary value is further attested by another quote, in aphorism 16, where he argued that “wealth lies in the use of wealth, and when man has been brought to his proper state all men shall have as much wealth as they need and that much only.”[x]
One of Thompson’s earliest influences was the liberal thinker and parliamentarian, John Stuart Mill. Many passages in his journal therefore offered extended comments on the nature of freedom and individual liberty. One example is aphorism 26, which stated that “the true freedom of man lies in the freedom of his thoughts.” For Thompson, this idea meant that “he who is most physically subjected (sic) by a tyrant is often mentally and hence truelly (sic) free; and thus he who is subjected (sic) by superstition or his own vices, though living in the greatest physical liberties, is the most servile.” In other words, all the political freedom in the world did not matter if our habits and beliefs prevented us from making truly free and independent decisions.[xi]
This does not mean Thompson always present a unified or even coherent picture of reality in his writings. Many of his aphorisms lacked much critical reflection, including aphorism 26, discussed above. After all, it is difficult to argue that oppressed subjects of a tyrannical authority are “truly” free, even if those subjects maintain clarity or freedom of thought. What is the purpose of “mental freedom” if we may not exercise it? Why should this take precedence over “physical” freedom? Why must they be ranked, at all?
It is even difficult to determine how convinced Thompson was by any one perspective or line of inquiry. His thoughts were always changing and often contradictory, and his humour could verge on cruel and cynical — all markers of someone just beginning to seriously reflect on the world. For Thompson, religion was often the worst culprit of oppression and therefore “atheism is the greatest factor of liberty.” At other times, however, he singled out exploitative capitalists posing as “philanthropists,” and Thompson even wrote in one aphorism that, in fact, “sentimentality is the cause of all misery.”[xii]
As Thompson grew older, writing would remain one of his most important tools for clarifying his thoughts and communicating his beliefs to the reading public. Although they would continue to change across the twentieth century, his ideas would assume greater consistency and power as he took on greater roles in the labour movement and as he continued to read and discuss politics with those around him.
Building Solidarity in Dangerous Times
Thompson’s early experience with the SPC did not only involve debate and reading. Often, during meetings in Oromocto, Thompson, Fillmore, and others would sing socialist labour songs printed by the Charles H. Kerr publishing house, a company Thompson would help revive during the 1970s. Fillmore himself was also an amateur agronomist, and so between readings or meetings, the group would often tend to his local nursery. In later years, Thompson recalled that he and others “enjoyed ourselves up there,” noting as well that it sometimes “seemed to us we weren’t doing anything about Socialism.”[xiii]
However, it was important to maintain a culture of solidarity and to make time for recreation, because, as Thompson quickly discovered, the work of activism could often be very lonely. In a 1970 speech to Canadian students in Waterloo, he recalled that “the radical movement in which I grew up was predominantly one of old men with hardly any young people in it.” He explained that during recruiting drives for the SPC, he “thought it would be very nice to have … people somewhere around my own age in the Socialist movement.”
Such recruiting work could be dangerous as well as isolating, a detail Thompson also recounted to the students in Ontario. During one leafleting campaign in Fredericton, he reported, he and several SPC members were attempting to discuss politics with attendees of a local circus when they received word of a travelling mob reportedly hunting “bolshevki” in the area. According to Thompson, the mob eventually materialized. But instead of fleeing the scene or hiding, Thompson and the other party members donned caps and joined the mob to avoid suspicion. For Thompson, it was a “bone chilling experience,” and he did not wish to think “what [his] own actions might have been had they found a victim.”[xiv]
Specific events such as these are difficult to firmly corroborate without more diverse source material. However, Thompson would indeed experience violence and harassment for most of his life. In 1923, when he was living in California and had just begun his work with the IWW, Thompson was arrested simply for handing out pamphlets, an act that contravened California’s recently passed “Criminal Syndicalism” legislation. He would spend over three-and-a-half years in San Quentin State Prison for his transgression. Until his successful bid for American citizenship during the 1960s, Thompson would also be perennially threatened by the authorities with deportation back to Canada.[xv]
Conclusion: Becoming a Movement Leader
Following his graduation from high school in 1918, as well as a brief tenure as a clerk in a sugar refinery, Thompson left Saint John for Halifax to find more regular employment. There, he quickly became “a significant force in the labour movement,” as the surrealist poet, historian, and fellow Wobbly Franklin Rosemont wrote in his obituary of Thompson in 1987. While working odd jobs and eventually in the city’s shipyards, long the site of class struggle and confrontations over better wages and conditions, including the nine-hour day, Thompson taught economics to other workers and volunteered as a journalist for the local labour paper, The Citizen. His activism culminated in a lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful strike at the shipyard during the summer of 1920.[xvi]
However, it is important to observe that by the time of the shipyard strike, and even during his work with the IWW, Thompson did not undergo a clearcut or smooth transition from “student” to “leader,” as if the first ended when the second began. Rather, just as he was not born prepared to teach Marx in Halifax, but learned from his fellow workers and activists as an adolescent, so, too, was he influenced by new mentors and experiences as a young adult. If he “became” a leader in the labour movement, in other words, this process was never complete nor straightforward. Frederick Thompson was always in a process of becoming a leader, and he did so in collaboration with those around him in the struggle to build a better world.
[i] Fred Thompson, The IWW: Its First Fifty Years (Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1955). Members of the union have been called “Wobblies” almost from its inception in 1905, but the origin of the term is unknown.
[ii] Eric W. Sager and Gerald E. Panting, Maritime Capital: The Shipping Industry in Atlantic Canada, 1820 – 1914 (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 196-202; T.W. Acheson, “The Great Merchant and Economic Development in St. John 1820 – 1850,” Acadiensis 8, no. 2 (1979): 3-27; C.M. Wallace, “Saint John, New Brunswick (1800 – 1900),” Urban History Review 4, no. 1 (1975): 13-20.
[iii] Frederick W. Thompson Collection, Wayne State University (WSU), Box 22, Folder 6. See also, “Deaths,” Frederick S. Thompson, New Brunswick Vital Statistics, accessed digitally through https://archives.gnb.ca/search/VISSE/141C4.aspx?culture=en-CA&guid=2c973477-4746-4d1f-a0ff-5e4b19db7c77
[iv] Fred Thompson letter to Penny Pixler, July 12, 1985, Fred Thompson Papers, Newberry Library Chicago, Box 1, Folder 71, pp. 1-2.
[v] Thompson to Pixler, July 12, 1985, p. 2; Linda M. Ambrose, “‘Better and Happier Men and Women’: The Agricultural Instruction Act, 1913 – 1924,” Historical Studies in Education, 16, no. 2 (2004): 258.
[vi] Fred Thompson, “Rough Draft,” Frederick W. Thompson Collection, WSU, Box 6, Folder 26, pp. 1-2.
[vii] Fred W. Thompson, “Speeches and Discussion,” Taped by the Canadian Student Federation of Waterloo, Ontario, January 1970 accessed via: https://libcom.org/history/speeches-fred-thompson-1970, pp. 132-133. See also “Gribble, Socialist, to be Released,” The Globe 12 February 1916.
[viii] Thompson, “Rough Draft,” 2; E.T. Kingsley, Western Socialist, February 7, 1903; Peter Campbell, “Let Us Rise: Dialectical Thinking, The Commodification of Labour Power, and the Legacy of the Socialist Party of Canada,” Labour/Le Travail, 87 (2021): 93-120; Rosanne Currarino, “The Politics of ‘More’: The Labor Question and the Idea of Economic Liberty in Industrial America,” The Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (2006): pp. 24-30.
[ix] Thompson, “Speeches and Discussion,” 140.
[x] F. Willard Thompson, “Thoughts, June 1915,” Fred Thompson Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, Box 1, Folder 9, note numbers 16 and 18. Although the book is labeled “June,” “July” is also listed in the book, after which months are no longer recorded.
[xi] Thompson, “Thoughts,” note number 26.
[xii] Thompson,” Thoughts,” note numbers 5, 26, 42. In one example of his more cynical notes, Thompson wrote that “public opinion is the baying of dogs at the moon.” See note number 37.
[xiii] Thompson, “Speeches and Discussion,” 139-140; See also Fred Thompson and David Roediger, Fellow Worker: The Life of Fred Thompson, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1993), 17. This book offers a short autobiography of Thompson’s life, which his friend and fellow radical David Roediger compiled using Thompson’s letters, speeches, and oral histories.
[xiv] Thompson, “Speeches and Discussion,” 134, 140-141. “Bolskevki” was a pejorative name for the Bolsheviks, or members of the Bolshevik party in Russia. Many on the left were targeted as “Bolsheviks,” even if they had no affiliation with the Soviet Union.
[xv] Government sources often offer comprehensive histories of oppression. In this case, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the United States reviewed Thompson’s history of arrests and detainments during his lengthy battle for US citizenship and provided us with useful source material. “Petition for Naturalization of Fred Willard Thompson,” Frederick W. Thompson Collection, Box 6, Folder 16, pp. 1-7.
[xvi] Franklin Rosemont, “Fred Thompson, 1900-1987: Wobbly and Scholar,” Labour/Le Travail Vol 20 (1987): p. 8. See also Fred Thompson letter to John Bell, August 9, 1976, Fred Thompson Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, Box 1, Folder 27, pp. 4-10.